The World Is Watching Us

How do we talk about being American?

I have been a traveler these past two weeks. First, I spent a week in Scotland and the Hebrides, then a week in Sweden with cousins. In some ways, the two weeks couldn’t have provided more contrasting experiences.

My travel companion Pat and I were on the go during our time in Scotland, sleeping in a different place virtually every night. We experienced unexpected delays, changes to our itinerary, and a storm that nearly stranded us on an island. We hiked the tallest mountain on Arran, Goatfell, which tested me physically like never before.

My time in Sweden was spent in Vasterbykil, a village of some 60 homes a few hours north of Stockholm. My days at Per and Gunnel’s lovely home were easy, languid. We sat in their garden for hours while the kites, kestrels, magpies, and skylarks filled the air with their distinctive sounds. We ate lunch in a small summer house. We lingered over every meal, and our evenings often ended at the table when we’d finished the wine. We read, we napped, we had excursions through the countryside that included a stop for coffee or lunch. One morning I got up at 3 a.m., long enough to see the midsummer sunrise.
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Since my first “real” trip—to Romania in 1972 with the Nordic Choir at Luther College my sophomore year—I’ve loved traveling. If not the planning and the jet lag, always the new places I experienced and the unexpected along the way. I’ve come home with a broader view of the world, often gratitude for what I have, and thoughts of where I might go next.

But this time, I was also reminded, as my half dozen trips to Central America reinforced, of the awkward embarrassment I feel as an American in another country. I’m reminded how much we have and expect. How extreme our political, economic, and social situations are becoming. How we keep “gaining weight” not just from food but everything else we use to excess: natural resources, power, money,  material things, and time.

The day before I flew home, I made an unexpected connection with an 84-year-old second cousin on my father’s side. Hardis was sharp, delightful, and a serious archivist of photos, articles, a log of visitors over the past 40 years (including my father in 1960), and a guestbook she asks everyone to sign.
Hardis greeted me warmly, we hugged, and then she said, “The last time I saw you was at your home in the states in 1971. Nixon was president then, but we won’t talk about that.”
Shortly after, as we sat on their porch and had coffee while it rained outside, she brought up our current president, then added, “We won’t talk about him.”

From that exchange and several others with people I met during my trip, I came home feeling that the whole world is watching us. Not with an envious eye, or out of admiration, or as a welcoming place it once was for our ancestors. More I sensed skepticism, distrust, especially concern that the America that once offered people a chance to write a new chapter to their lives has itself become a cautionary tale.

The Eye of the Storm

Even here, the world does not end

I woke before 5 this morning. Wednesday is a Fosamax morning. Last summer my doctor suggested I have a bone density scan, given my age and family history. Sure enough, the scan showed early signs of osteoporosis. So I began a weekly regimen. The instructions for taking the white pill are precise. Immediately upon waking, I must get up and remain upright for an hour before eating anything. I must take the pill and drink at least 8 oz. of water. Tuesday evening I make sure I have a full water bottle on my nightstand. I even cut the foil packet open the night before because my morning hands struggle to peel the backing away.

But before I took my pill and chugged the water, before I even sat up, I checked the weather on my phone. The rain that was predicted wouldn’t start until 6 a.m. Still foggy from staying up late reading, I pulled on clothes, grabbed my raincoat, and headed out.

A sudden wind came up. I checked the sky. Pale and dull, I noticed large areas to the south and west that looked like they were smeared with smoke. A few drops of rain dotted the sidewalk, but I was under the canopy of trees.

I have walked my neighborhood thousands of times over the 33 years I’ve lived here, mostly with a dog, now without. On instinct, I adjusted my route. The storm was coming fast, and I didn’t want to venture too far. I decided to walk a circle so I was never more than three blocks from home.

I kept checking the sky. The patches of dark had become one solid mass. The wind tugged at my hood. Down an alley, crossing a street, whenever I ventured into the open, rain hit me. The air became rich with smells the rain was stirring up. Through it all, the birds kept up their morning chorus.

The night before, my writers’ group had a public reading. Ten of us shared an excerpt from a current project. Some of us are working on memoirs. One read a chapter from her mystery; two others have essays in progress.

Our conversations before we took our turn at the podium revealed a general nervousness. We were all sharing our particular piece for the first time. By the end of the evening, though, our nervousness had given way to relief, even giddiness. The world had not ended. People had not stood up and left.

Me, I felt pride. Not the full-of-yourself boasting my mother warned against. The patriotic kind. I was proud to stand among other writers whose work it is to give voice to the dark and subtle and all-too-familiar places of the heart.

Every day writers walk into the eye of the storm, I realized, as I circumnavigated my neighborhood in the now steady rain. Last night we shared the hard, bittersweet stories from our lives, stories that won’t let us go.

Writers value the truth and pursue it, even when it hurts. They bravely come to their desk or chair or favorite coffee shop day after day, even when it feels impossible. We sing in spite of danger. We do it because we know where writing takes us, if it’s worth anything. To the eye of the storm, to the bloody center, where our craft demands that we throw every reservation to the wind and risk it all.

Every Day Is Mother’s Day

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world

When I was in sixth grade, I had this assignment. I was to debate against classmate Bob Edwards the question, which is the better sex, female or male? While the question itself was wrong, I won because of my mother. When I told her I wasn’t sure how to make my case, she offered up an aphorism from her secret arsenal: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

This from a woman who quit her job as soon as her husband returned from the war so they could start a family, a housewife (by her own definition) whose work was never done, a woman whose work ethic set the bar in our family none of us has surpassed, a person who would do anything for the other.

Yet for much of my mother’s life, I didn’t give her much credit. I recognized that she was entirely capable, organized, compassionate, and generous, but there was one thing she did that made my gut twist. She put herself down. “I’m so fat” or “I’m so dumb” or “I’m so ugly.” None of her statements was true, yet it seemed almost necessary for her to remind herself of her unworthiness.

With the arrogance of youth, I vowed my life would be different. would be different. I was going to succeed where I believed Mother had come up short. I would rock the cradle and rule the world. (As a white woman who hasn’t felt constrained by race, poverty, or class, I recognize the privilege from which I write. Only in the realm of being female have I met resistance, while many women face resistance on multiple levels.)

Then I met my first husband while in graduate school. Within a year I’d quit my job in publishing, gotten married, and moved to Minnesota. I became pregnant and began freelancing. During that time I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. She articulated the importance of women having a separate personal identity. She validated my need for self-actualization.

For the next forty years, two powerful forces did battle inside me. In an early novel I was writing, I explored this tension through the mother, a journalist, who tells her young son she is taking an assignment overseas and will be gone for a while. What would happen, the mother wondered, if she gave up what she loved—being a mother—for what she loved—the pursuit of her own dreams? Were these forces necessarily in conflict? Was it possible to have both?

As with so many of the writing projects I’ve attempted over the years, I didn’t finish that novel. I also didn’t finish exploring that question. Now I’ve come to realize that there is no answer, at least not an easy one. Or that the answer is different for every woman, regardless the generation.

I had many more opportunities available to me than my mother did. I have a college education and graduate degree. I’ve traveled widely. I’ve found expression and accomplishment through my work outside of the home. Still, as my own insecurities dog me, I am more like her than I ever imagined I would be.

For too long I’ve been a feminist of convenience, at little personal risk. In 1984 I attended the rally at which then-presidential candidate Walter Mondale introduced Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate to my cheers. I sat in the auditorium at Hamline University while Anita Hill recounted the abuses she endured from Clarence Thomas; for a few months I wore a pin that read “I believe Anita Hill.” I marched with thousands of women in January 2017, buoyed by a collective need to be heard, and then went about my life. Worst, I too often dismissed my mother as “just a mom” and ignored her daily, quiet effort to make my life better.

Mother may have been a traditional housewife, but she was the better feminist. Her agenda never wavered. Everything she did was for her children. She had dreams of a college education and a career (she confessed late in life that she would have gone to seminary had women been accepted) that she realized through her daughters. Accepting the limits society placed on her and she, sadly, placed on herself, she still chose to sacrifice her very self so that I might have a stronger sense of mine.

Mother’s was the hand that rocked my cradle, preparing me to make my way in the world. I remember and honor her and all the mothers who have made possible the freedoms I enjoy. Now I must do the same.

Waiting for Spring

I’m realizing just how much I haven’t said

As I slog through revision upon revision, a question keeps surfacing. How do I—who has embraced and experienced silence much of my life—write about it? And how do I persist when the horizon seems to keep receding?

Not easily, it turns out. And not quickly. Not without wanting to abandon the effort more than once. I’ve longed for this moment. I have the time and few distractions. I have the energy. But what about the will?

In most situations, I’m nothing if not determined. I set out to transform my yard and garden and, weed by weed, perennial by perennial, I did. I wanted to be a good mother to my children, and when I see what fine individuals they have become, I smile at whatever part I had. I wanted to lend as much quality and dignity to our mother’s last 10 years of life, and with steady support from my siblings, we did.

But when it comes to writing, summoning that determination has proved more challenging than I ever imagined.

It’s not that I’m undisciplined. I make a wide space for writing every day. I don’t check e-mails first or head down the labyrinthian paths of the Internet. But I also log plenty of hours staring outside and noting the activity of birds and neighbors alike. As Patricia Hampl reminds us in her new book The Art of the Wasted Day, daydreaming is good. There is value in allowing our often crowded mind to relax and wander down any path it chooses. Yesterday I was practicing this almost lost art when darting across my absent gaze out the window were gold and house finch, making their first bright appearance of the year in my yard.

It’s not that I’m a quitter (I could never face Mother in heaven, presuming I join her there), and I doubt I’ll go quietly into the night. Instead, I find a way forward, doggedly if need be. But has this bull-headedness met its match? Has my stubborn determination been stopped in its tracks by my attempt to tell the most personal of stories, my own?

“Make your story louder,” my writing coach urges. By that she doesn’t mean adding sound effects. She’s looking me in the eye and beckoning me—the reserved, private, insecure person I am—out from behind the curtain to center stage.

I’m finally beginning to realize just how much I haven’t said.

I’m beginning to grasp how many layers I’ve accumulated between my wounds and others’. Too often, I have used words the way they were used in my childhood home—not as tools for communication but as a means to keep us quiet so as to maintain a deadly calm. I can render a beautiful sentence, but every time I do, I wonder if I’m not creating another place to hide.

Writing I’ve understood as a solitary pursuit, and I’ve done my part to further that notion. When I sit down to write, my phone is muted. The radio is in another room and off. The dog I still miss sleeps at my feet. (When Marlon James declares he writes his award-winning novels in coffee shops, I’m mystified.) In my case, does silence beget silence? Does my isolation in order to practice my craft only reinforce the walls I’ve built?

What would happen if I shouted what was in my heart, a heart I’ve too often kept off-limits even to those I love? Would it feel like the arrival of Spring, unexpected and entirely welcome?

Lessons Learned

Writing’s one condition: honesty

For more than 4 years, I’ve maintained this blog, some stretches more regularly than others. My stated intent was to embark on a journey of self-discovery and claim my own voice and place in the world.

Looking back, I think I’ve done that. With each post, I’ve taken an idea, a feeling, an experience and given it flesh. I’ve explored the question “Who am I?” by sharing glimpses from my life. Now, having been at my craft for some time, I want to share some lessons learned.

• Writing takes courage. It’s like boring an augur to one’s heart, even when it hurts. As self-evident as it may seem, this was a revelation to me. I had long written for organizations and been the voice of others while keeping my own voice and opinions silent. I had long played it safe by standing on the sidelines and not entering the conversation.

• Writing is hard. Most days I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve done. Giving birth pales to the effort of bringing an idea into being, at least for me. Often the gestation period for a draft I’m slogging through is much longer. Still, I wouldn’t trade my writing time for anything.

• Writing leads to new understanding. As many writers have said before me, I write to make sense of the world and to find out who I am. But writing also draws me into the unknown. My mother is more central to my memoir than I originally imagined. Yes, she was the sun around which my childhood orbited. Yes, I cared for her during the last 10 years of her life. But the place she occupies in my story is even more essential. She instilled values that shaped me—kindness, generosity,  faithfulness, humility. She also struggled with a sense of unworthiness that migrated to my own self-understanding. Exploring her felt presence in my life has helped me acknowledge aspects of myself I’ve long avoided or tried to mask.

• Writing demands feeling. My writing coach excels at asking the probing, necessary questions. What is the overarching emotion driving my story? Without that prompt, I might not have eventually been able to say, “I’ve always felt different, alienated from the world, which has led to a deep longing to belong and be loved for who I am.”

• Writing has one condition: honesty. If done with real intent, writing leads to the truth beyond the truth, or Truth with a capital “T.” More than scientific proof, more than the inarguable sum of 2 numbers, writing yields a consequential power that both embodies and transcends us. Writing transforms. It brings us to a place of resurrection and new life.

The stakes are high in writing. Sometimes they feel impossibly high. What if I say something that is controversial? What if I break open the notion I’ve cultivated about myself and let others see the “real” me? By its very nature, writing must have stakes. It doggedly pursues the “what ifs” down labyrinthian paths, with no promised end.

Writing is like entering a practice room every day, a room where a musician goes to play or sing a passage over and over again to get it right. Writing is like yoga (as I’ve said before), demanding singular focus—a willingness to push the boundaries of what we think we know or can do in order to  strengthen our very purpose.

Substitute “life” for “writing” in the bulleted list above and the same lessons apply.

This Is Us

A giant selfie that makes me like myself a little bit more

It was an auspicious start to the new year.

At a small gathering where facial care products were being promoted and, like a biblical miracle, my wine glass stayed full, I won a drawing. I never win drawings, contests, or competitions. Even when there’s a giveaway, I seem to step up to claim my free sample just as the last one has been handed out.

Then, I heard my number called out. (I can’t reveal it because it is now my lucky number, one I will use in all passwords and contests going forward.) Granted, only four numbers were in the hat, but I was still shocked, if not momentarily giddy. Who me?

My prize was a selfie light. A few of you know that I have no talent for taking selfies, largely due to a complete lack of interest or practice. The very few times I’ve attempted a selfie, I captured all of the forehead and not much else, or got to the pore level of my face. Ew. Guaranteed, my selfies will flatten your face.

The second auspicious event of 2018 was attending a Super Bowl party. Well, actually, it was a game night with girlfriends with the “big” game decidedly in the background. (We even discussed whether to turn on the TV.) Too busy talking and eating and talking, we never did play any games. When I left the party around 9 p.m., I had no idea what the score was.

But I did remember what one of the women said. “You’ve got to see This Is Us.’ ”

I had not turned my TV on for six weeks. January and much of February I protested winter evenings in my own way—recovering from bronchitis, reading, and doing jigsaw puzzles while listening to podcasts.

I take recommendations from girlfriends seriously. After some false tech starts, I signed up for Hulu so I could watch a series that began in 2016 and was already well into Season 2. I had a lot of catching up to do.

I love this show.

Like my selfies, it zooms in on the lives of triplets and their parents. “This Is Us” is an intimate family drama that doesn’t need violence, sex, or profanity to be good. Better than good. The close-ups allow you to get to know the characters well. At pore level. You see them at their best and worst, doubting and confident, triumphant and broken. And everything in between. Their longings, loves, addictions, disappointments, and joys. Incidentally, the triplets are conceived the night of Super Bowl XIV.

The show portrays the human condition in all its complexities. The characters—Jack and Rebecca, Kevin, Kate, and Randall—are rendered so authentically that it’s nearly impossible not to take the emotional ride with them. As Dan Fogelman, the creator and executive producer said, “the show makes you cry but also makes you feel good.”

Unlike the current environment, defined by a 24-hour news cycle, the series plays out in a world where everything else is mere backdrop. The funky clothes and classic cars tell us we’re in the seventies. A reference to “Hamilton” places the scene in the present. We learn, briefly, that Jack is a Vietnam vet. Otherwise, each episode is about us, the collective, flawed, resilient face of humanity. One reviewer described the show as “a meditation on the true and expansive meaning of Family.”

In every episode, the characters face the full range of experience, sometimes bravely, sometimes reluctantly, and sometimes not at all. This is us. When I’m done watching for the evening, I feel the kind of peace that follows recognition, connection, and acceptance. I come away liking myself a little bit more.

Living As Revision

A journey of heart and mind and spirit

Talking with an 8-year-old can be instructive. At dinner last week, my niece, who pays close attention to what adults are saying when she herself isn’t talking, put her elbows on the table, rested her chin in her hands and sighed under the weight of the sentiment she was about to share: “I wish Donald Trump wasn’t the president.”

Her mother calmly replied, “I know you feel that way. So do I. And that’s why we were part of the Women’s March and why we are working to elect good people who will bring about change.” The reframing was clever and spot on. If it wasn’t the wine on that cold January night, I was sure I felt a shift in the fault line running through our country.

Intentional or not, my work on the memoir coincides with the calendar. Early in a year I’m launching into a revision, full of ideas and energy. By fall, as the earth slips into a long quiet and I’m ready for a comedy, I fancy the word “done” leaping across my desk. I suspect at some point I will declare the manuscript finished. I may even believe it’s ready to be sent out into the world.

But here’s the curious thing. Life goes on. Which means “revision” of a higher order continues, necessarily so. If you’re God, you can create the world and everything in it in 6 days and consider it good or very good. If you’re not, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.

I’ve been rereading Homer’s The Odyssey. A new English translation—the first by a woman, Emily Wilson—recently came out. It’s described as fresh and authoritative, written in “a vivid, contemporary idiom.” Wilson has tapped into the emotional currents that flow through the story perhaps better than her predecessors. As you may recall from freshman English, Odysseus has been trying to return home for 20 years but has encountered one obstacle after another. He represents the archetypal heroine’s or hero’s journey—the very journey we are each on. Yes, there’s the actual journey of going from one place to another, but there’s also an inward journey, one of the heart and mind and spirit. The heroine grows and changes along the way. Hers is a journey from one way of being to the next. In the case of my niece, from mournful sentiment to decisive action.

I’d bet I was one of thousands of freshmen across the country who didn’t quite “get” Odysseus’ struggle. I was bored by one over-the-top feast after another, the endless flow of wine, and, fundamentally, the fact that it took him 400 pages and 24 books to make it home. Now I think I see why. The version of life my parents taught me and expected I would follow (I did not disappoint) left out the journey. It didn’t honor the longing to answer the question “Who am I?” for myself. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to appreciate Odysseus’ quest and understand it as my own.

In her wonderful new book, Living Revision, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew offers a refreshing take on the dreaded aspect of writing: revising. Instead of subtitling her book “a guide to creating a bestseller,” Andrew asserts that the painstaking process of revising our work is a spiritual practice. “Our capacity to transform our writing is intricately connected to our willingness to change how we see our subjects and the world . . . For your writing to change, you must change.” (Introduction, xviii)

So when people ask me how my writing is going, I’m honest. I tell them I’m in the midst of a revision. Even when the memoir is done and has found an audience, and another project is underway, my answer will be the same. Living is revision. The journey continues.